I haven’t composed much this year. In fact, I’ve only written two pieces: Mechanical Landscapes (commissioned and premiered by East Lansing High School) and now, Concrete Oasis. The latter is a pretty big work though.

Clocking in at just under 50 minutes, Concrete Oasis has been my main project for nearly a year. Generously sponsored by the Arts Council of Greater Lansing’s Chris Clark Fellowship program, it details the rise, fall, and renewal of an unnamed city in the American Rust Belt from 1897 – 2015. Never named, the city is an amalgamation of places – Lansing, Detroit, Flint, Gary, Toledo, and any number of other cities large and small. It’s been an incredible project, that has allowed me to explore some of the factors that contribute to the death of cities, and what some people are doing to try to reverse the decline. I’m honored and excited to present the resulting piece and the recording, but first, some people need to be acknowledged for their help with the project. Unfortunately, the lack of liner notes on digital releases means that most people won’t see these as intended on a physical disc, so special thanks to:

 

The Arts Council of Greater Lansing

Bill Adcock and the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum

Eric Schertzing and the Ingham County Land Bank

Sawyer Stevens and the Lansing Brewing Company

Joy Baldwin and Anita Brett – Artists

Sarah Fuhrman and Brennan McBride – Proofreaders extraordinaire

Ryan Hunt – Photoshop and booklet assistance

Ryan Wert – Mastering Engineer

Nate Bliton, Andrew Hannon, Igor Houwat, Dave MacDonald, Ben Mawson, Dave Rosin, Catherine Ryu, Mark Swarthout, and everyone else who provided feedback during the mixing and mastering phases.

And of course, my parents.

 

And now, here’s the extended preface that had to be cut for the sake of space from the liner notes on the limited physical release. The digital version is now available at Bandcamp, and will soon be up on CD Baby, Google Play, iTunes, and streaming sites. The full liner notes can also be found here. Enjoy.

-Ben Fuhrman

9/9/16

 

“I’m thinking about writing a piece about urban decay.” That’s how this project began over beers with friends. I had no idea just how quickly it would grow. Originally intended as a self-contained work, it quickly grew to three, then five, movements as I researched the subject. Delving deeper and deeper, I kept coming up with new topics to explore in what would become the final version of the piece: seven movements that trace the rise and fall of a city in the American Rust Belt.

 

As a Michigan native, this subject resonates on a personal level. My high school was across the street from a now defunct GM plant, and a number of my friends’ and classmates’ parents worked for the automobile industry or the manufacturing plants that supplied them. Cities like Detroit, Kalamazoo, and Flint weren’t simply abstract places on a map; they were the homes of family and friends, places I had visited and knew well. I had walked their streets, visited their museums, and played gigs in their bars…

 

And I had watched them die.

 

It’s no secret that Michigan’s economy is tied to the automobile industry, but what many people don’t understand is the scope of the relationship. In addition to the assembly line jobs, there are jobs manufacturing various engine parts as well: glass, steel and the other materials used to build cars. There are jobs shipping parts from place to place, and town to town. There are jobs maintaining the roads used to transport parts and finished cars throughout the state, the same roads used every day by people driving to and from work. Then there are the jobs that support the people working in the automobile industry and their families: teachers, restaurateurs, grocers, doctors, lawyers, cleaners… All are built on the foundation of the automobile industry.

 

And if the foundation cracks, the house falls.

 

Any number of factors contributed to the decline of the automobile industry in the run up to the 2007 Great Recession. The increase in automation on the assembly line led to fewer workers, as did companies that left the US for countries with lower wage workers. Term limits and other political reforms led to a death of the career politician and to the rise of hyper partisans who made themselves unaccountable to voters by gerrymandering districts. Successive weakening of the once-powerful unions and instituting tax policies favoring corporations and the wealthy shifted more financial burdens onto what remained of the middle class. And through it all, media soundbites touted progress.

 

Things quickly got worse after 2007’s economic implosion. As jobs disappeared, people moved out of the Rust Belt in greater and greater numbers. Homes with unaffordable mortgages were seized by banks or simply abandoned. Cities that had promised their workers pensions were unable to pay them. And successive generations of politicians kept cutting taxes in order to “stimulate the economy,” while simultaneously raiding state education coffers to make up for the loss in revenues for basic governmental services.

 

The situation came to a head with the suspension of local democracy through the imposition of emergency financial managers appointed to “turn around” cites that had been bled dry. If anything, they made things worse and further accelerated the decay.

 

Given the power to overrule local governments, the emergency managers did just that. Union contracts were voided, creditors were paid at the expense of pensioners, and city services were all but eliminated in some areas. But the worst of these abuses was the unilateral decision to switch the water supply of Flint, Michigan to the notoriously polluted Flint River without adding corrosion inhibitors. The highly corrosive water and antiquated pipe system of the town led to an estimated 12,000 children being exposed to water with dangerously high levels of lead. False reassurances and cover-ups further prevented residents from accessing clean water, and many have since reported hair loss, skin lesions, and an increase in Legionnaires’ Disease, to say nothing of the long-term costs of lead exposure to children.

 

As of the completion of this piece, replacing a single lead water line in the city of Flint costs an estimated $7,500. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s daily legal bills related to the Flint Water Crisis are $6,500. The median income for a household in Flint is $28,015.

 

And yet, despite all of this hardship, some areas of the Rust Belt are experiencing a resurgence through an old, but popular product: beer.

 

States like Michigan and Wisconsin have embraced the craft brewing movement, as home brewers have expanded into local favorites and even national players. The success of breweries such as Bell’s and Founders has helped reinvigorate and expand consumer demand for quality beer. And while breweries are a relatively recent development, they have nevertheless had a positive effect on their hometowns’ economies, providing jobs and helping turn around local economies.

 

This is the story I am telling in Concrete Oasis.

 

Framed by a prelude and a postlude, Concrete Oasis is a sonic imagining of the rise and fall of a city in the Rust Belt in three sections. Though inspired by my home state of Michigan and specifically referencing events that have happened there, many other places in the country have similar histories. I like to think that this piece is inspired by them all.

 

The title is a reflection on the function of the city as an economic oasis in the American landscape – now reduced to a decaying husk of its former self, yet still pointing to past glory and possible future potential. An allusion to Shelley’s Ozymandias? Of course, but with a hope for rebirth that’s missing from the poem.

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